Fruit of Loom pick worked for Canucks in 1984 Olympics

By Bob Elliott

The KLM flight was over the Atlantic on its Amsterdam-Toronto flight path during the summer of 1984.

Eric McKenzie walked down the aisle handing his catcher Larry Downes a piece of leather.

“What’s this?” asked Downes in mock shock as he looked at the first baseman’s glove.

The message was clear: Downes would play first base when Canada made its initial foray into Olympics at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Fresh and flush from winning the five-team, 13th Honkbal Week tournament in Haarlem, Holland most of the Canadian team headed to Klaus’ Party Haus, which we are told is a place where you could have a post-game libation, maybe even a party and it was owned by Klaus.

Kevin Reimer, the clean-up hitter couldn’t find his Team Canada jacket and figuring someone had stolen his swag, punched a hotel door in anger injuring his hand.

Lefty Rod Heisler from Moose Jaw, Sask., often pitched to catcher from Niagara On-the-Lake, would start the opener against Nicaragua.

“We’re trying to get to sleep before our first game in the Olympics at Dodgers Stadium and my roomie calmly asks ‘you know the pick play with men on first and second, right?” Downes recalls. 

Downes did not. Heisler explained how if he tugged on his jersey with men on first and second, that meant Downes would sneak in behind the runner at first for a back-door pick.

“Here we are standing in our Fruit of the Looms going over signs,” Downes said.

The next day Canuck pitching coach Dick Groch told the lefty and the green first baseman “nothing fancy, don’t do anything stupid,” out there. 

Sure enough back to back runners reached, the light went off for Downes as Heisler looked like he was picking lint from his jersey and picked the runner at first as quick as you could saw Moose Jaw Saturday night. 

“We’re running off the field after the third out,” Heisler said, “there were 40,000 people at Dodger Stadium who didn’t know that was coming -- 40,004 if you count our coaches.”

Downes knew to listen to Heilser. Everyone knew. The lefty competed at more international competitions for Canada than anyone else with 14, one more than Windsor second baseman Stubby Clapp and Dorchester catcher Chris Robinson.

That 1984 Olympic team, Canada’s first in the Olympics, were at the Rogers Centre for a reunion Sunday afternoon and they will be there again Monday night.

Eight Canucks went pro, three made the majors. Victoria B.C’s Steve Wilson, Sarnia’s Mike Gardiner and Reimer from Enderby, B.C. each played six seasons, 

Windsor’s Mark Wooden pitched five seasons in the Seattle Mariners system, while Alain Patenaude, of Laval (two, Detroit Tigers), Oshawa’s Scott Mann (four, Montreal Expos), Lethbridge’s Scott Maxwell (one, Blue Jays) and Ron Thomson, who now lives in Startford (four, Tigers) played in the minors. 

Outfielder Doug McPhail flew in from Calgary, Cambridge second baseman Bobby McCullough from Atlanta, Wilson now New York Yankees Pacific Rim scouting coordinator arrived from Phoenix and Thomson came in from Tampa. Thomson is the Yankees bench coach. While the others will wear Baseball Canada golf shirts and hats, Thomson will be in manager Joe Girardi’s dugout as his right arm. 

If you see these guys around the park Monday night thank them for representing their country, opeing the doors for the likes of Walker, Morneau and Naylor. In 1984 there was not any financial aid from the government for ball players. 

They were a bunch of college kids from Nevada-Reno, Portland, Miami-Ohio, Anderson, Bemidji State, Cochise, Seminole, Iowa Western, Orange Coast and Palomar walking where Pedro Guerrero, Fernando Valenzuela and Tommy Lasorda had been a week before.

They lost 4-3 to Nicaragua, 3-1 to Korea and then beat Japan 6-4. 

Gardiner, 18 at the time, was the last to pitch in Holland.

“(Coach) Alfie Payne, God rest his soul, has me off in a corner telling me not to worry about starting, Robbie Thomson walks by and says ‘Alf he’ll pitch a complete game.’,” said Gardiner from Charlotte, N.C.

Gardiner pitched into the ninth to beat host Holland 2-0. 

MacKenzie asked Gardiner, his western Ontario neighbor, for “three innings” against Japan in LA. Gardiner pitched into the ninth (“longest three innings I ever pitched”) before Wooden closed it out. 

Gardiner thought he had pitched well, but he didn’t comprehend his outing until he returned to his summer team, the Stratford Hillers.

“I’m on my couch in Stratford watching the gold medal game thinking ‘oh my gosh Japan is beating the Americans,” Gardiner said. Team USA had the players like Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, Ken Caminiti, Mark McGwire, Will Clark
Shane Mack, Oddibe McDowell and Cory Snyder.

Downes singled in his first at-bat of the Olympics while his picture showed on the Jumbotron at Dodger Stadium. He told a teammate not playing to get his Kodak and take a picture in his next at-bat. Why?

“Because it’s going to read ‘Larry Downes. Average: 1.000’” Downes explained.

“Next time up it will say .500. Time after that it will be .250, then .200.”

The picture, like the rest of the memories from the 1984 Olympics Canada’s first venture, will last for ever.